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How Americans Came To Feel the Way They Do About Animals

by Bill Wasik & Monica Murphy

Pub Date: April 23rd, 2024
ISBN: 9780525659068
Publisher: Knopf

The authors of Rabid return with an examination of the historical shift in attitudes of Americans toward animals.

Wasik, editorial director of the New York Times Magazine, and Murphy, a veterinarian, focus on the mid to late 1800s, when “America was collectively waking up to animal suffering….It was as if, in the span of little more than a decade, animals had gone from being seen as objects, mere things that humans were justified in treating however they might like, to being creatures whose joys and sufferings had to be taken into consideration.” However, this social movement did not occur without resistance. Horses carrying heavy loads down increasingly busy streets were frequently treated cruelly, dogfighting was a common form of entertainment, and live rabbits were used by medical schools for demonstrations. This era also saw the rapid decrease in the bison population as white settlers expanded into the frontier, and countless American birds were “being slaughtered wholesale for the cause of fashion.” Wasik and Murphy explore all of these topics compassionately. Central to the discussion is Henry Bergh, who founded the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1866. The authors describe the “unexpected” and sometimes contentious relationship between Bergh and showman P.T. Barnum, and they report how the “grim, poorly ventilated” slaughterhouses in Chicago were initially met by the public with “a strange sort of fascination.” Wasik and Murphy share the contributions of other activists that “propelled the anti-cruelty cause forward,” including Philadelphian Caroline Earle White and Bostonian Emily Appleton, who were successful in establishing local chapters of the ASPCA, and George T. Angell, editor of Our Dumb Animals, an unusually named publication that ran for more than 80 years, advocating for their humane treatment.

A well-researched account that strikes a nice balance between description and analysis.